Zanzibar police clash with Islamist mourners

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 20, 2012 2:17 PM
Zanzibar police clash with Islamist mourners

By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala

STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) - Riot police clashed with supporters of a separatist Islamist group in Zanzibar gathered at a mosque on Friday to pray for victims of a ferry disaster that killed at least 71 people.

Police fired teargas at supporters of the Uamsho (Awakening) group who blocked a busy road in the historic centre of Stone Town after Friday prayers, witnesses said.

"Some of them were wearing masks to cover their faces and threw stones at the police. Police fired teargas and water cannons as roads were closed," said Mwinyi Hamza, a resident of Zanzibar, an Indian Ocean archipelago which is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania.

Zanzibar police said they had acted to break up an illegal gathering and had made several arrests. Uamsho was banned from holding any gatherings after its supporters set fire to churches in May.

"Supporters of the Uamsho group claimed they had gathered to say special prayers for victims of Wednesday's ferry accident. It was an illegal gathering, so we were forced to use teargas after they refused to disperse," spokesman Mohammed Mhina said.

"They burned tires and blocked the road at the Darajani area, which is one of the busiest places in Stone Town."

The clashes will add to concerns sparked by the church attacks in May of an escalation in religious tensions in the predominantly Muslim island ruled by a secular government.

Police said they had recovered three more bodies from Wednesday ferry accident. The vessel, with a maximum capacity of 250 people, was carrying 290 when it sank on its way to Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania.

"Three more bodies have been recovered today, all of them women - they were spotted by a passenger boat. This means that the death toll ... has now risen to 71," said Mhina.

"The emergency operation is still ongoing to try to recover more bodies. We don't expect to find any survivors now because it is very difficult for anyone to survive in the difficult conditions at sea."

At least 145 people have been rescued.

Police in Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, where the MV Skagit/Kalama began its voyage, arrested the manager of the company that owns the vessel, Omar Hassan Mkamnhongt, as part of their investigation into the cause of the accident.

Many residents have voiced anger at the government for failing to tighten lax safety regulations, especially after more than 200 people were killed in a ferry accident in September in Zanzibar's worst maritime disaster.

(Editing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)